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  1. Last week
  2. Today was the final day of what feels like it has been a really long holiday Our flight home from Ljubljana wasn't until 22.30, so we wanted to make the most of the day and started researching possible destinations for day trips last night. The main problem we came up against was that Slovenian trains don't seem to run very frequently on Sundays and so some destinations didn't have trains which would get us back to Ljubljana on time for the final airport bus of the day at 19.10. In the end we found a combination of trains which would make it possible for us to visit the town of Ptuj, in the north east of Slovenia, which we knew was supposed to have a really pretty old town. After a final breakfast of burek, we set off for the station and paid €6 to store our suitcases in the luggage lockers. The tickets to Ptuj cost around €11 each, and Tim did a very good job of ordering them, considering that the name "Ptuj" is not the easiest in the world to pronounce The train journey took slightly over two hours, so it was around 11.30 when we eventually arrived in Ptuj. Ptuj seems to be another town which doesn't think it is worth signposting its town centre from its train station. We walked in what we hoped was the correct direction, getting the first indication that we were on the right track when we found this beautiful white church. The next significant building we found was Ptuj's town hall, which is rather grand. The town hall was located in a pretty square. We soon discovered that the old town in Ptuj is full of really colourful buildings. As we walked out of the square with the town hall, we got our first glimpse of Ptuj's main church: St George's. The church has a huge free-standing tower. The big white stone in front of the tower is known as the Orpheus Monument, and was originally a Roman gravestone, erected in the second century AD. We walked through more colourful streets... ...until we came to a narrow cobbled path which was signposted towards Ptuj Castle. We got our first glimpse of the castle as we began climbing up... ...and when we turned around to catch our breath, we had views back towards the town centre and the church. Eventually we got to the top of the castle hill... ...and could see out over the whole of Ptuj. Although it wasn't the sunniest day in the world, it was really beautiful here As well as the town, we could see the river Drava and the mountains in the distance behind it. You had to pay to go into the castle and see some sort of exhibition, so we decided to give that a miss. Instead, we walked around the hill, enjoying the views in all directions... ...before beginning the climb back down. We went down a different way to the one we had come up, as we had caught sight of a bright pink building in the distance. As we followed the path towards it, we had some good views back up towards the castle. The pink building turned out to be a rather ornate monastery. We strolled by the river... ...and back into town. We still had some time to spare before our train, so we sat down for coffee and cake at a cafe next to the church tower. I was a bit chilly so Tim lent me his shirt Then it was time to catch the train to our second destination of the day: Celje. Celje, which is the third-largest town in Slovenia, is less than an hour away from Ptuj by train. Our main reason for going there was that the connections back to Ljubljana were more frequent than from Ptuj. We were impressed when we stepped off the train in Celje and found ourselves right in the middle of the town centre This unusual building is Celje Hall, which was built in the early twentieth century by a Viennese architect as the cultural centre for the German-speaking population of the town. After the Second World War, most of the German population left the town and so the building is now used as a tourist information centre and as a venue for concerts. The centre of Celje seemed small, but there were some colourful streets. As we were walking through the main square, I caught sight of a logo which looked familiar The other main feature of the square was what we assume is Celje's main church. It was a very pretty square - I don't think it's often that Grant Thornton has such a picturesque location Once we'd done a circuit of the old town, we headed back towards the station and found a cafe to have another coffee before our next train. From the train station we saw the main sight of Celje which we hadn't had time to visit today: Celje Castle. We now had to get back to Ljubljana, which involved a short train journey to a station called Zidani Most, followed by a transfer onto a train to Ljubljana. Once in Ljubljana, we just had time to retrieve our luggage and grab some food before fighting our way onto the final airport bus of the day and heading to the airport. Where we found out that our flight was delayed by 35 minutes Delays aside, it has been a brilliant holiday. We've visited four countries and seen nine castles, three lakes and two caves; that's not a bad record for two weeks off work
  3. Clare

    Day 15: Bohinj

    Today we were planning to visit a place which was originally on our itinerary when we last came to Slovenia in 2015, but which we had to give up on that time around because the weather wasn't good enough: Lake Bohinj. Lake Bohinj is in the same direction as Lake Bled, but a bit further on, so the bus journey from Ljubljana takes around 2 hours. We decided to make a fairly early start and catch the bus at 09.00. It was a very scenic journey, and shortly after 11am we stepped off the bus in the small village at the eastern end of the lake. We crossed over a bridge... ...passed the local church.... ...and soon got our first view of the lake. Lake Bohinj is the largest lake in Slovenia. The circumference of the lake is 7.5 miles and the guidebook said it would take about 3.5 hours to walk around. The guidebook said that there was a proper walking path along the northern side of the lake, with the path along the southern side being a road, so not as nice. We decided to start with the northern side. We began to follow the path. There seemed to be a lot of people swimming and sunbathing at this end of the lake, although it was definitely quieter than at Bled. The water of the lake was a really amazing shade of blue once you looked away from the pebbly beaches. When we turned away from the lake there were some beautiful views of the countryside as well. We could see all the way to the other end of the lake from this part of the path and it did look like it was quite a long way! Thankfully it was a nice sunny day Our first problem with the path came when we encountered this herd of cows. Some of them were standing right in the middle of the path, so I found getting past them rather nerve-wracking! Fortunately we managed it. Once we got past the cows, we were able to enjoy the views again. Apparently Slovenia is divided over whether Lake Bled or Lake Bohinj is the most beautiful, and it's easy to see why Lake Bohinj is certainly less developed; there are fewer hotels here, and the path around the lake was a lot more rugged than at Bled. In fact, we soon came to a sign saying that the footpath was closed We couldn't work out why it was supposed to be closed though... and we could still see groups of other people continuing on the path... so we decided to keep going. The path began to take us through more woodland, so it was harder to see the lake. Occasionally we just got glimpses through the trees After a while we figured out why the path might have been closed; it became increasingly wet and muddy underfoot, and we could see that if there was a lot of rain it might be a struggle to get through. It was just about doable today, though we did get a bit of mud on our trainers! Eventually the path crossed what seemed to be a dried-up stream... ...and emerged at the far end of the lake. The views from this end were wonderful as well. In one direction it still looked quite sunny... ...but in the other direction it seemed like it was becoming cloudier, so we decided we'd better not linger for long in case the rain which had been forecast for today actually arrived. We crossed a bridge over a river, where the water was a beautiful colour. It was flowing pretty quickly! central-europe-2018-day-15-54.mp4 Once we got past the river, we were indeed walking on a roadside path along the southern edge of the lake, as the guidebook had said. This was definitely easier underfoot than the path through the forest, which turned out to be a good thing because very soon it started to rain! It was amazing how quickly it went from being a sunny day to being a very wet one! Luckily our path was mostly under the trees, so we managed to avoid getting completely soaked as we made our way back to the village. Eventually we made it and were able to shelter inside the bus stop while we waited for the bus back to Ljubljana. The journey back ended up taking more like 2.5 hours as there was a road closed due to an accident near Bled, but it was definitely worth it to finally see Lake Bohinj
  4. Tim

    Day 14: Postojna

    More images of the olm/human dragons: They're blind and without skin pigmentation. They will never naturally come into contact with light and so haven't developed eyes. Although they're primitive, they have some features which would be useful to us. For example, they breathe through gills but have some basic lungs which allow them to breathe air out of water for a while. Most impressively, though, is that once they've eaten, they can go ten years without food!
  5. Clare

    Day 14: Postojna

    Bled might be the most picturesque tourist destination in Slovenia, but it's not the most visited; that honour goes to the Postojna caves, which were our destination for today. The town of Postojna is located about 40 miles southwest of Ljubljana and it ought to be easy to get to, because it's on a direct train line from the capital, but we were slightly out of luck today because the train we were trying to travel on had been replaced by a rail replacement bus The journey, which should take just under an hour on the train, ended up taking more like an hour and a half. It was a scenic trip, taking us on steep mountain roads through tiny villages. In one place I saw a sign warning about bears I was a bit worried that it was going to take us so long to get to Postojna that we would miss our entry slot for the caves, but the bus eventually pulled up outside the railway station there at about 11.10. Because the caves are so popular there can be huge queues of coach parties etc, so the advice had been to book tickets online in advance. This tied us in to visiting at 12.00 today and the booking confirmation had said that we needed to be at the caves by 11.30 in order to change our booking voucher into proper tickets. The caves are located about 2km from the railway station, so we had a bit of a brisk walk through Postojna and made it to the caves for not long after 11.30. Phew! It turns out that I needn't have worried because there weren't enormous queues and it didn't take long to exchange our voucher for tickets. We then walked up the steps towards the entrance of the cave. We could see the way in, and it looked rather dark! We joined the queue for the English language tour and were soon able to pass through the barriers, towards the train. Yes, that's right, the train! The Postojna Cave is a bit more sophisticated than the Lake Cave we visited in Tapolca last week and there's no rowing here Part of the tour takes place on this (admittedly fairly basic!) train, and the remainder is by foot. Soon we were off! 20180713_131334.mp4 I had read some complaints in reviews online that the train goes too fast and that it was like being on a rollercoaster at the fairground. It went at a reasonable speed, but it was slow enough to be able to enjoy our first views of the cave and start to form an impression of just how huge it is. vlc-record-2018-07-14-16h38m23s-20180713_120302.mp4-.mp4 The train ride covers about 2.5km of distance inside the cave. The website warns that it's really cold in the cave (around 8 degrees) and they're not lying; I felt absolutely freezing as we whizzed around the different parts of the cave. Soon it was time to get off an start exploring by foot. The walking tour covers about 1.5km, with various stops for commentary about the caves from the guide. The path is initially quite steep as you climb up towards the highest point of the cave. There are some incredible views from here. Some of the stalactites and stalagmites are enormous. The stalagmite in the centre of this picture is referred to as the leaning tower of Pisa, and we could see why From the highest point you gradually descend to the lowest point of the cave, passing over a chasm on a bridge which was built by Russian prisoners of war during the First World War. You have to be more careful walking downhill, as the path can be a bit slippery in places with all the water dripping from the roof. Based on the discovery of graffiti within the caves, the first visit here is believed to have been in 1213. The caves officially became a tourist destination in 1819, when they were visited by Archduke Ferdinand. Electric lights were installed in the caves in 1884, which was before electric lighting had made its way to Ljubljana. Today the lighting is great throughout and illuminates the really interesting bits of the cave. A train track was first installed in the cave in 1872, although initially the carriages had to be pushed along by the guides. A gas locomotive was eventually installed, with the trains switching to electric in 1945. It is definitely much more civilised travelling through a cave on a train compared to a rowing boat And the walking part of the tour was really good fun. I had seen some complaints online about the speed of the walking part as well - and it was true that you couldn't dawdle if you didn't want to lose your group - but we still had plenty of time to take photos. It's hard to convey in the photos just how huge the cave is inside, but it never felt claustrophobic because the ceiling was always so high above us. The guide said something about this being because one shaft of the cave had collapsed into a second shaft of the cave at some point, but I tried to ignore that bit At one point we did find a bit of the cave with some water, though this wasn't enough to row a boat through By the end of the tour I felt like this had been such a spectacular cave that any future caves we may visit can only be an anticlimax. One final "attraction" at the end of the tour is an aquarium, home to some creatures known as olm. In the old days they used to be called baby dragons, because people believed that dragons lived in the cave. They are also referred to as human fish, for reasons I didn't quite understand. Anyway, they live in these sorts of caves and personally I think they look horrible!! After we'd admired(?) the olm, we were left to wait for a while in this enormous cave room, where they sometimes hold concerts. Then it was back in the train again, to be driven back up to the surface. vlc-record-2018-07-14-16h39m29s-20180713_120529.mp4-.mp4 We'd been underground for about 90 minutes at this point so once we came outside it felt very, very bright! All that now remained was to walk back into Postojna, get some lunch and catch the train back to Ljubljana. Tickets for Postojna are hideously expensive (it cost €27.90 each, which definitely makes it the most expensive activity we've done on this holiday, if not the most expensive activity we've ever done on any holiday!) but it was definitely a unique experience
  6. Clare

    Day 13: Lake Bled

    When we woke up this morning there seemed to have been a bit of an improvement in the weather. It wasn't raining at least, although it still looked very cloudy over Ljubljana, and the forecast suggested it ought to stay reasonably dry until the later afternoon. After another beautiful breakfast of burek, we decided to go ahead with our original plan for the day, which was a trip to Lake Bled. Lake Bled is situated about 35 miles northwest of Ljubljana, in the more mountainous part of Slovenia. Although there is a train station near the lake, it isn't on a direct line to Ljubljana and therefore the best way to get there from the capital is to take a bus. There are lots of buses to Bled (approximately one every 30 minutes) and the journey takes around an hour. Slovenia is definitely the most expensive country of this holiday; the tickets were around €12 each for a return. As we got closer to Bled, the clouds began to clear and at times it almost began to look sunny. Perhaps I wouldn't need my raincoat after all The bus stops at the small town of Bled, which is located at the eastern end of the lake. The town itself isn't terribly scenic, with a collection of concrete hotels. Only a few hundred metres away from the bus station though you can get your first view of the lake, and the lake is magnificent We started walking anti-clockwise around the lake. The tops of the mountains were in the clouds, but there was still a great view. There is a small island in the middle of the lake, which is home to the church of the Assumption of Mary. The church as it currently stands was built in the late seventeenth century. There seem to be some renovation works being done on the church tower at the moment. The circumference of the lake is around 4 miles so it's easy to walk all the way around. We were already making good progress and could now see some of the ugly hotels in the distance. There's a beach at the western end of the lake, where there was a collection of people sunbathing and swimming. There were also some ducks having a nap It looks like it would be quite pebbly underfoot if you tried to paddle... ...and it also looks like there might be rather a lot of fish central-europe-2018-day-13-47.mp4 As you come further around the western edge of the lake, there is a wooden footway right alongside the water, which gives some really great views. From here you can start to see the other iconic building around the edge of the lake: Bled Castle. The castle is perched on a rocky crag above the lake. It is believed to be the oldest castle of Slovenia, having first been mentioned in a document dating from 1011. This side of the lake was quite quiet, as it was furthest away from the town and the bus station. As we got back towards the other side of the lake, it became a bit busier again. We did find a kiosk to buy postcards, though And there were some really great views up to the castle from here. We could now see back towards the town of Bled and its distinctive white church. It was looking a bit cloudier by this point, but it was so beautiful that when we got back to the start we decided to do a second lap around the lake It turned out to be a good decision, because things did actually brighten up a bit Plus the clouds themselves were actually very atmospheric! It was so nice and peaceful here that we could have stayed indefinitely central-europe-2018-day-13-82.mp4 And when the sun came out it was particularly lovely. central-europe-2018-day-13-92.mp4 The bus out had been so busy though that we didn't want to leave it too late in case there was a scrum for seats on the return buses... and two laps of the lake was probably our limit anyway... so we had one last look at the view and then set off back for Ljubljana. This was our third trip to Lake Bled and I think it's fair to say that it's still one of my favourite places ever
  7. We woke up to a rather grey and wet Ljubljana this morning. The only bright spot was that we'd seen a bakery that sold burek yesterday, so we were able to enjoy a very tasty breakfast Our plan for today was to visit a town called Novo Mesto in south eastern Slovenia, mainly because out of all the ideas we had for things to do in Slovenia, this was the one which seemed most doable in the rain. Novo Mesto is located about 45 miles from Ljubljana and the train takes around 90 minutes. We caught a train at 09.30, so it was just after 11.00 when we disembarked in a slightly damp Novo Mesto. The first sight we came across was Novo Mesto's cathedral, a large stone building which is on a bit of a hill above the rest of the town. The other notable church in the town is yellow church of St Leonard, which we caught sight of in the distance. Although Novo Mesto is apparently the seventh biggest town in Slovenia, it isn't actually very large, so it wasn't long before we had found the main square, Glavni Trg. It looked like it would be a nice place if it was a sunny day... and if it wasn't currently in the process of being dug up for roadworks! The town of Novo Mesto is located in a bend in the river Krka and it wasn' t long before we found the river From a bridge across the river we had a good view in both directions. We walked toward the yellow church, which was originally built in 1472 by Franciscan monks who were fleeing the Ottomans in Bosnia. We had then hoped to walk along the river for a few miles, towards a place called Otočec where there is a castle. Unfortunately there wasn't a good path along by the river and after we'd been walking for a while, it started to rain quite heavily. In the end we decided that it would be best to turn back. Once we'd got back to the centre of town, we found a lovely cafe where we were able to dry out and enjoy some coffee and cake. Tim had a banana cake (yuk!) while I had an amazing chocolate and blueberry cake Then we decided to call it a day and catch a train back to (an also quite wet!) Ljubljana. Here's hoping that tomorrow will be a bit drier!
  8. We had a rather slow start to the morning, because our train from Zagreb to Ljubljana was at the slightly awkward time of 12.36. There are several trains a day between Zagreb and Ljubljana but it isn't possible to buy the tickets online in advance, so we had to wait to buy them at the station this morning. As so often with international tickets, I'd struggled to find any reliable mention of what they might cost online, so I was very happy when it turned out to be €9 each I'd budgeted for it to be about €20 each and so this, combined with the extremely cheap prices in places like Varaždin yesterday, meant that we had a fair amount of Croatian kuna left; so much that it seemed like it would be worth trying to change it into Euros. We followed signs for an exchange office in the station, but when we got there it turned out that they were only able to change Euros into kuna and not the other way round. The woman there gave us some instructions about how to find another exchange office; she spoke very fast, but I understood it as go outside, go round a corner and down some steps. We set out to do that, but the only steps we could find looked like they were leading down to a subway route to other platforms. It didn't look too hopeful, but Tim decided to explore them anyway while I waited above ground with the baggage. I waited for quite a long time.... and when he eventually came back, it turned out that there was an entire underground shopping centre down there that we didn't know about The good news was that there was indeed an exchange office down there too, so he had managed to change our excess kuna into €50 The platform for the Ljubljana train was really busy and it was a bit of a mad scramble when the train arrived. There seemed to be a lot of backpackers travelling between Zagreb and Ljubljana (or possibly further afield, as the train continued on to Villach on Austria). We found some seats in a compartment that didn't have any labels to say seats were reserved and were just getting comfortable with our baggage, when some girls arrived to say that they had reserved three of the seats in this compartment. Some other people moved so we were okay, but when the conductor came round to check our tickets, I asked him whether there were free seats somewhere else, or how we could tell which seats were reserved. He announced that this was a train with no reservations, which was rather odd, as the backpackers had obviously booked their tickets through some sort of travel agency and paid for a reservation. At least we knew that if anyone else turned up, we could tell them to go and speak to the conductor about their reservation It takes around 2.5 hours to get from Zagreb to Ljubljana, which is not because it's terribly far but mainly because the train wastes the best part of an hour at the border. Although both countries are now in the EU, Slovenia is in the Schengen area and Croatia isn't, so there was a Croatian passport check, followed by a Slovenian passport check, followed by a Slovenian ticket check. Once the train is moving again it's a really beautiful journey though, following the course of the river Sava through some steep wooded valleys. We finally arrived in Ljubljana at 15.15, to find that it was raining. Oh dear Luckily we didn't have far to walk to our apartment though, and it turned out to be really nice. There's a living area with a sofa and TV... ...behind which is hidden a bedroom area. There's also a nice kitchen/dining area... ...with a modern-looking bathroom behind. Ljubljana is not a particularly cheap place, so the apartment works out at about £70/night, on top of which we have had to pay a tourist tax of €2.50 each per night. Cheaper apartments were available, but I chose this one because of the location (it's really near the town centre, but also within easy reach of the train/bus stations) and the fact that it had air-conditioning (which seems fairly rare for apartments in Ljubljana). Once we had unpacked a bit, we set out to see a bit of the city. The apartment is really close to my favourite bridge, Zmajski Most (Dragon Bridge). We walked along the river Ljubljanica, admiring the views. Before long we were able to get glimpses of Ljubljana's castle, which towers above the town. There are several other bridges across the river, in addition to the Dragon Bridge. We followed the river until we came to Ljubljana's main square: Prešernov trg. There's a beautiful pink Franciscan church here. There is a large statue of Prešeren, a famous Slovenian poet, in the middle of the square. And there's a great view up to the castle from here We walked a bit away from the river, through colourful streets. This impressive building is now part of the University of Ljubljana, although originally it was the parliament building of the Carniola region, during Habsburg times. Eventually we found this square - Novi Trg - which probably has the best view of the castle From here we crossed the river and walked along the other side.... ...until finally we got back to the dragon bridge Unfortunately it had started to rain again by this point, so we had to give up and go back to the apartment. Here's hoping the weather improves for the rest of the week!
  9. Earlier
  10. Clare

    Day 10: Varaždin

    Our plan for today was to visit the town of Varaždin, located about 50 miles to the north of Zagreb. We had visited here once before, in 2013, but that was during winter, so I thought it would be fun to see it in summer too You can get to Varaždin either by bus or by train; the bus is quicker, so probably most people's preferred option, but I like travelling by train and remembered it as a very scenic journey from last time around, so we decided to give the bus a miss. Part of the reason that the train is so slow is that it doesn't seem to take an entirely direct route to Varaždin. The other reason is that it stops at an incredible number of stations en route, many of which were so small that they looked more like bus stops in the middle of nowhere than actual train stations. It was indeed a pretty journey though, taking us through a hilly and forested countryside. We arrived in Varaždin just after 11.30 and faced the same problem as last time we were here: not being able to find the town centre, because it isn't signposted from the station. Luckily I could just about remember the direction we had taken last time and we soon had confirmation that we were on the right track when we came across Varaždin's beautiful pink cathedral. The cathedral is not far away from the town's main square. At the far end of the square is the town hall. The centre of town is full of colourful little streets and we wandered around them for a while. There are several colourful churches too. Eventually we got a glimpse of the town's most striking sight: the castle. It really only was a glimpse: the castle is hidden behind these big embankments, which were built to help protect it from the Ottomans. You have to climb a path up the embankments to get a better view You can then follow the path around the top of the embankments and see the castle from all angles. A castle was first built here in the twelfth century. It was significantly rebuilt during the sixteenth century, giving it the form it takes today. It's a lovely place to stroll around in the sunshine, and it was definitely warmer than last time we were here Once we'd seen the castle, we walked around the streets of Varaždin once more, on the look-out for a place to have lunch. I remembered the previous meal we'd had in Varaždin as being a cheap one and sure enough, when we found a restaurant we weren't disappointed. We had a feast of spaghetti bolognese and bread, followed by chocolate pancakes and coffee, and accompanied by water, wine and beer... and all for the price of 175 kuna (approximately £20)! There was just time for a final walk around Varaždin before it was time to start the long train journey back to Zagreb. We've had a fun few days in Croatia Tomorrow we will be moving on to the final country of this holiday: Slovenia!
  11. Clare

    Day 9: Samobor

    After the early start yesterday we had a more relaxed start to this morning I had a lie in, then we enjoyed the novelty of a hotel breakfast, before setting out towards our destination for the day: Samobor. Samobor is a small town, around 25km from Zagreb, in the direction of the Slovenian border. I had read online somewhere that it was supposed to be the best day trip from Zagreb, so was interested to see what it would be like. The town isn't on a train line, so we set off towards Zagreb's main bus station in search of a bus. The internet suggested that there would be a bus at 11.20, but when we arrived at the ticket counter we found out that there was actually an earlier bus at 11.00, which was a bonus. The tickets cost 31 kuna each (less than £4), which also seemed like good value. The journey to Samobor took around half an hour, although it felt like longer in the very hot and un-airconditioned bus. It wasn't a busy bus though, so at least we didn't have to fight for seats When we got off the bus at Samobor's bus station, it wasn't initially very clear either where the town centre was or what the timetable for the return buses might be. Fortunately we eventually found a road sign to help with the first problem, and solved the second as well when we realised the timetable for each bus was pinned to an outside pillar near to where that bus departed from (as opposed to there being a central timetable on display inside the bus station building). Following the directions to the town centre, it didn't take us too long to arrive in Samobor's main square. The main church in the town is yellow (though looks like it could do with a bit of re-painting!) A small river runs through the town, crossed in various places by little bridges. This covered wooden bridge in particular was rather unusual. The internet had said that it was possible to walk alongside the river. We found a path, but within 10 minutes or so we'd come to the end of it. We turned around back in the direction of the town centre... ...and this time found a longer path in the opposite direction. There were some lovely views of the river... ...and in the distance we caught sight of the ruins of Samobor castle. The path we were following alongside the river eventually began to turn upwards into the forest. As the path became increasingly steep, we realised it must be leading up towards the castle. It was hard work, but eventually we got there. As it's a ruin, the castle is free to enter and walk around. The castle was originally built in the thirteenth century by supporters of the Czech king, who was engaged in a war with Hungary. The Hungarians soon took control of the castle and the town of Samobor itself. The castle was occupied until the end of the eighteenth century, after which it gradually began to decline and fall into ruin. There was hardly anyone else at the castle when we were there, so we were able to explore as much as we wanted. There were some beautiful views back down towards the town... ...and of the surrounding countryside, which is quite hilly and forested. I particularly liked the view of the blue sky behind these two windows The path which we had climbed up on was quite steep, so on the way down we decided to try another path which looked like it might turn out to be a bit flatter. Happily it turned out that it was, and judging by the number of people who passed us on their way up, this is probably the main route that most people take from the town. On the way we passed the chapel of St Anne, which was constructed in the eighteenth century. From there it wasn't long before we got a familiar view: the yellow church in the centre of Samobor. Soon we were back in the pretty town square once again Although it was past lunchtime by this point, we weren't really hungry after our big breakfast. That turned out to be a good thing, because although we did walk around Samobor for a while, the only things we could find were cafes rather than restaurants. We decided to catch a bus back to Zagreb, and go out for a meal there in the evening instead
  12. Today feels like a long day, because it got off to a very early start. We'd agreed with the lady who owned the apartment that we would check out at 7am, which was the time we needed to leave in order to get to the station on time for our first train of the day, but it felt like a little bit too early when the alarm went off this morning! We somehow managed to get packed and have breakfast by 06.55 and met the lady outside the apartment to give back the key. She offered to drive us to the train station, which was really kind of her, though it was a bit of a tight squeeze in her car with our suitcases. She doesn't speak any English, so we had to converse in German during the journey. It definitely felt a bit early to be speaking German But she did explain to us that the reason why German is the main foreign language spoken in this part of Hungary is that Lake Balaton used to be holiday destination that both East Germans and West Germans were able to visit, so families who were separated by the Berlin Wall used to come here on holiday to meet up. Thanks to the lift, we got to the station earlier than expected and had a while to wait before our 07.47 train to Balatonszentgyörgy. Balatonszentgyörgy is only about 10 minutes away by train, so we spent longer waiting for the train than actually sitting on it. We then had to wait until 09.08 for our connecting train to Zagreb, which was coming from the direction of Budapest. Balatonszentgyörgy isn't a very big station, but luckily there were some benches where we were able to sit and read. Around 9am, we started to hear announcements about our train; firstly in Hungarian, and then (luckily!) repeated in English. It turned out that it was delayed by 10 minutes... then by 15 minutes... Eventually we could see a train approaching on the horizon. This was accompanied by a further announcement, this time only in Hungarian, the only word of which I could understand was something which sounded like "Keszthely". "Keszthely" was repeated several times, which didn't make a whole lot of sense, because the train definitely wasn't supposed to be passing through there on its way to Zagreb. Our confusion increased as the train pulled into the station and we realised that the signs on the side of the carriages also said "Keszthely". Was this our train or not?! There were a few conductors standing on the platform so Tim asked one of them and it turned out that this was the correct train, but that the Zagreb carriages were right at the far end of the platform. It was a very long platform, so we had a bit of a panicked jog from one end to the other. It felt like we passed about 10 carriages labelled "Keszthely" before we finally got to one that said "Zagreb". Phew! The train was due to arrive in Zagreb around 12.30, so we settled down for a long journey. The train crossed the border at a Hungarian town called Gyékényes, where we stopped for a fairly long time in order to have a Hungarian passport check swiftly followed by a Croatian passport check. The train started moving again, before coming to a halt again shortly afterwards in the Croatian town of Koprivnica. The conductor announced that we all had to leave the train here and get on a different train. Oh dear! It was a bit of a mad rush, but we managed to get off the Hungarian train and cross the platform to a Croatian train waiting on the other side. We found seats and even had somewhere to put our luggage, so were just getting comfortable again when the conductor walked down the carriage announcing that we would soon need to transfer to a bus! Sure enough, the train halted in a small place called Križevci, and we all had to pile off into four buses which were waiting outside the station. The buses then drove us to a nearby town called Vrbovec, where we all got off and boarded another train. Initially I wondered whether this was what always happens, in which case I felt like there had been a bit of mis-information online about this being a direct train to Zagreb, but it turned out that we were just unlucky and that they are doing repair works on track between Vrbovec and Križevci. We finally arrived in Zagreb around 13.15, about 45 minutes later than originally expected. We are staying at the Hotel Central again; a slightly old-fashioned hotel near the train station where we have stayed several times before. We checked in, then set off into the centre of Zagreb in search of something to eat. It was a bright sunny day in Zagreb, which contrasted with the rather rainy weather which had descended over Balaton last night. There were lots of beautiful flowers in the squares as we strolled down from the train station towards the main square. The view of the yellow art pavilion was slightly obscured today by what seemed like preparations for a concert. Before long we got to the main square, which was also slightly obscured by preparations for people to watch the World Cup. There were lots of stalls selling Croatian memorabilia. In between all of this, we could just about still make out the statue of Ban Jelačić. We remembered that we'd once eaten at a nice restaurant by the cathedral, so set off in search of that. Once there, we debated for a while over what to have before finally settling on a plate of grilled meat to share between two. It would have been a vegetarian's worst nightmare, but it was really delicious After lunch we went out to admire the cathedral, which unfortunately is still being renovated (it was being renovated when we were last here in 2015 as well). The tower which has now been repaired does look very pretty to be fair. There were more flowers as we walked back down from the cathedral towards the main square... ...and found the first of two Esperanto-related items which we know are in Zagreb. This is the word 'bonvenon' (Esperanto for 'welcome'), included on a 3D model of the town. The centre of Zagreb is built on two hills, with the first being home to the cathedral and the second home to the parliament. We started climbing up towards the second, passing this large statue of St George on the way. The parliament building itself isn't particularly impressive, but St Mark's Church next door to it definitely is. It definitely wins the prize for best roof as far as I'm concerned Not far from the church is the Lotrščak Tower, from which a cannon is fired every day at noon. Fortunately we had missed that today; it took us rather by surprise on one of the first occasions we came to Zagreb and didn't know about it! From in front of the tower there is a view down across the whole of Zagreb. Now that we'd seen the main sights, it was time to investigate the book shops in the main square We may have come away with several bags full, which we will now have the challenge of fitting into our luggage home! On the way back to the hotel, we deliberately crossed the road to see the second Esperanto-related item in Zagreb. The plaque records the fact that it was from this building that the first Esperanto magazine in Croatia was published in 1909. All in all it's been quite a tiring day of travelling, but it's nice to be in Zagreb again, and we don't have anything that we need to get up early for tomorrow, so I am looking forward to a lie in
  13. We first came to Lake Balaton during an excursion at an Esperanto event we attended in Hungary in 2008. The excursion we went on not only included a trip to the lake, but also a tour of a nearby vineyard and a visit to a rather unusual cave. 10 years later we couldn't remember the name of the cave, but when we were doing the research for this holiday, Tim came across a mention of it in the Hungary guidebook. It turned out that the place we'd been was the Tapolca Lake Cave and, as Tapolca is less than 20 miles from Keszthely, it seemed like it might be possible to fit it into our itinerary this time around as well. So it was that we made an early start this morning, to catch the 09.03 train from Keszthely to Tapolca. The train fare was unbelievably cheap (about £1.26 each) and the journey took around half an hour. Tapolca is a small town, although it seems pretty. Apart from the lake cave, the main attraction is Malom-tó (the mill pond). There was indeed a very large mill wheel here. ...and we found another yellow church too Because the lake cave is such a popular attraction, it's recommended to book tickets in advance. This was easy to do online and cost us 2000 forints each, which is around £5.50. We were booked in for a slot at 10.40, so after we'd spent a bit of time admiring the mill pond, we made our way towards the caves. I had read online that before you go into the caves themselves, you have to go around the visitor centre. What I hadn't realised when I booked online was that a) you have to do this as part of a guided tour and b) the guided tour is only available in Hungarian! It was probably a very informative visitor centre, but the finer details of cave formation were lost on us It must have taken about 45 minutes as we moved from one exhibit to the next, trying to make as much sense of the English and German translations on the walls as we could. Some bits were obviously about the discovery of the caves... ...others seemed to to be about the animals that live in the caves... ...and some were anybody's guess In the end, Tim jumped ahead of the group and ran into another guide, who spoke some English. He showed us this map, which demonstrates how the different caves run underneath the town of Tapolca. He also explained that while we were in the Lake Cave, there is another cave system called the Hospital Cave, which is used every day by patients of the local hospital with respiratory conditions, due to the very pure air inside the caves Personally I think if I was taken to hospital with respiratory problems and they put me in a cave, it might just about finish me off Anyway, the English-speaking guide said that we could skip the audio-visual display in Hungarian that the rest of our group was about to be subjected to and go straight down to the caves themselves. We started off down the staircase... ...and joined the short queue to wait for our turn. By this stage I was starting to have some doubts about whether rowing a small boat through a cave was what I really wanted to be doing on a Friday morning. This is my I'm-not-sure-I-want-to-be-in-this-cave face. The cave waiting room itself was actually quite impressive. We were probably there for about 10 minutes, until we got to the front of the queue. As the name suggests, the Lake Cave is a system of underground caves, filled with water. When you get to the front of the queue, you are helped into a small boat, handed an oar, and left to your own devices. We agreed in advance that Tim was going to sit in front and row Meanwhile I sat behind and tried to take photos (which was actually quite hard!) The water in the cave is beautifully clear (and it isn't too deep, so if you did manage to capsize your boat I think you could stand up!) Tim did a good job of rowing central-europe-2018-day-7-ch-35.mp4 As you progress further through the cave, the main difficultly becomes that the ceilings get increasingly low. In some places the passageway is too narrow to use an oar, so you have to propel yourself along with your hands. central-europe-2018-day-7-ch-50.mp4 It was definitely more enjoyable when there was a bit more space and you could admire the views vlc-record-2018-07-06-18h48m29s-central-europe-2018-day-7-ch-48.mp4-.mp4 The narrowest part was right at the end, but we made it through it one piece and were soon up in the open air once again. Phew! I think once a decade is probably enough for a cave-boating experience We decided not to buy the automatic photo which had been taken of us as we passed through. It was around midday by this point and so time to move on to the other place on our itinerary for the day: Badacsony. The train fare from Tapolca was less than £1 each, but unfortunately when we stepped off the train we could feel a few raindrops starting to fall. It had begun to get a bit cloudy while we were inside the cave, and it looked like there might be some storms after the heat of the past few days. We found a pizzeria to get some lunch while shower passed over, and by the time we had eaten, things were looking a bit brighter again. Badacsony isn't a big place, but it's right on the lake We walked around for a while, enjoying the views, before buying tickets for a boat back to Keszthely. Again it was very good value (less than £5 each). The journey took two hours and we were able to sit outside, making the most of the nice breeze on the lake as well as the views It was definitely more relaxing to be on this sort of boat on a lake rather than the rowing boats in the cave lake We've had a great time in Hungary, and I think it's fair to say that we've had some pretty varied experiences Tomorrow we will be moving on to Croatia, where the language should hopefully be a little easier to understand video.vertical {max-height: 100vh; width: auto; position: relative; top: 50%; left: 50%; transform: translate(-50%,0%);}
  14. Clare

    Day 6: Keszthely

    Today it was time for us to leave Budapest behind and move on to the next stage of our Hungarian adventure: Lake Balaton. We are staying for two nights in a town called Keszthely (pronounced "Kes-tay") on the northern shore of the lake. Trains from Budapest to Keszthely take around 2.5 hours and depart from a station in Budapest which we hadn't been to yet: Déli pályaudvar. This station is on the Buda side of the river, which was too far for us to walk with our suitcases, so we checked out of the apartment at around 09.30 this morning and walked to Keleti in order to catch the metro. This was our first experience with using the metro in Budapest, and it all went well. There are big purple machines where you can buy tickets (in English) and a single trip costs 350 forints, which is just under £1. A train arrived almost straightaway, and it only took around 10 minutes before we were arriving at Budapest Déli. Here we needed to use another ticket machine in order to purchase our tickets to Keszthely. These cost around 3,800 forints each (just over £10), which included a surcharge for travelling on an intercity train and also a seat reservation. The ticket machine spat out multiple slips of paper again, but we felt like we were beginning to get the hang of Hungarian train tickets now and managed to work out that we had been allocated seats 104 and 106 in carriage 5. The train was already on the platform, so we set off to find the correct carriage and our seats. It seemed like a nice train, with plenty of space for luggage, and not too busy. The "not-busy" part changed once the train stopped at the first station - Kelenföld, a Budapest housing estate - and hundreds of Hungarians, who were seemingly off on their summer holidays, got on. We were slightly disturbed when a lady came up to us and claimed that she had reserved our seats. She showed us her ticket, and it did indeed say that she had seats 104 and 106. Tim showed her our ticket, which said the same thing, and she said she would resolve it with the conductor. It turned out that she was on the wrong train, having reserved for a later one. Phew! Once the train had left Budapest, it didn't take long for the journey to become scenic, as we travelled along the entire southern shore of the lake. Our seats were on the wrong side of the carriage to get the best views, but it was still really pretty The train became a lot quieter after Siófok, one of the first stops on the lake, where most of the Hungarians got out. The southern shore of the lake is the party side, with Siófok being described in the guidebook as the Hungarian Ibiza. We had intentionally chosen to go to Keszthely, knowing that it was on the quieter, northern side The train arrived in Keszthely around 13.30, by which point we were some of only a handful of people left on it. It was a walk of just over 2km to the apartment I'd booked, which was in one of Kezthely's suburbs. Tim successfully navigated us through a maze of small streets, and we arrived just after 2pm to be greeted by the owner... who didn't speak a word of English. Luckily she did speak German, so we were able to check in without any problems. The apartment isn't quite as big as the one we had in Budapest, but it's still really nice. There's a combined sleeping/living area... ...then a separate kitchen and dining area. It was really good value again too, at just £45 per night Once we'd unpacked a few things, we set out to explore Keszthely. The main sight in the town is the Festetics Palace. The palace was built in 1745 and was the home of the local landowners. You have to pay to go into the palace itself, but it's free to wander around the grounds. And the grounds are really pretty, full of fountains... ...beautiful flowers... ...and a rather murky-looking lake. From the palace it was easy to walk down the main street and into the centre of Keszthely. It was a pleasant place and seemed pretty quiet. At the end of the main street is the large church of Our Lady of Hungary. We walked from the centre of town back down to the station, because I was nervous about trying to buy our onward train tickets to Zagreb. Yet again, because these were international train tickets I couldn't buy them online in advance and I had struggled to find even any reliable information about what the price might be online either. There are several trains a day which run directly from Budapest to Zagreb, and these all follow the route along the southern shore of lake Balaton, stopping at a nearby station with the catchy name of Balatonszentgyörgy(!) The only useful information I'd managed to find online was that, although the train to Zagreb stops at Balatonszentgyörgy, you can't actually purchase a ticket from Balatonszentgyörgy to Zagreb in Balatonszentgyörgy station, because there isn't an international ticket counter there. So we were hoping that we'd be able to purchase the tickets in Keszthely instead. Before we left the apartment, I'd written down the details of the train we wanted, in the hope of overcoming any potential difficulties with the pronunciation of Balatonszentgyörgy Happily, it all went well. There turned out to be a girl on the information desk in Keszthely station who spoke a little bit of English, and she was able to help the lady on the ticket desk understand what we wanted. Within a few minutes we had successfully purchased the correct tickets, which turned out to cost about £14 each. Again, doesn't seem like bad value for an international train journey! With the tickets successfully purchased, there was just one important thing we needed to do: actually see the lake Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe, and larger than all the other European lakes that we've visited. It's so big that you really could imagine that it was the sea, and there were certainly lots of tacky seaside stalls selling inflatables as we made our way down from the town to the shore. The only thing which made it really clear that it was a lake and not the sea were the many swans and ducks Although it was early evening by this point, it was still absolutely boiling hot. We strolled along a pier out into the lake for a while, before heading back to the apartment to cool off
  15. Clare

    Day 5: Eger

    The plan for today was a day trip to the town of Eger, around 100 miles to the northeast of Budapest. It's supposed to be one of the most beautiful towns in Hungary, so when we were planning the holiday we were keen to build it into our itinerary. I was flicking through the guidebook over breakfast to refresh my memory of what I wanted to see, and Tim volunteered to take a photo of the map of Eger town centre, so that we could consult it more easily while we were on the go. He glanced at the map and immediately saw... this! Wow, it seems there is an Esperanto street in Eger Trains to Eger leave from Budapest's Keleti station, which is only a kilometre or so from where we are staying. The station looked very impressive from the outside.... ...and it was pretty inside too, with a big glass roof. Finding the station was no problem at all but I was worried that once we got there, buying a ticket might turn out to be a challenge. It turned out that there were ticket machines, which helpfully removed the need to try and communicate in Hungarian The Hungarian ticketing system seems a bit complicated, as we had to pay a basic price for the fare to Eger and then various supplements depending on which train we were travelling on. The ticket machine printed out a whole host of small slips of paper covered in Hungarian, which we couldn't make head nor tail out of. Tim put them all in his wallet and we hoped for the best. It cost around £7 each per direction, which didn't seem too bad considering it was a journey of around two hours. There actually aren't many direct trains between Budapest and Eger every day, so we needed to change trains in a place called Füzesabony. We arrived there just before 11am, having spent the past 90 minutes predominately travelling past fields and fields of sunflowers While we were consulting the departures board to try and work out which platform our connection to Eger would be departing on, I was slightly unnerved to see this poster which seemed to be warning about bears. Hopefully it wasn't announcing that they were parading down the main street in Eger The journey from Füzesabony was only 20 minutes or so. Our slips of paper had passed the multiple ticket inspections that had taken place, and so we successfully arrived in Eger around 11.30. The station is located a bit outside of the main town, and so our first task was to try and find the centre. Luckily, there were plenty of helpfully signs pointing towards "Centrum" and we were soon strolling through a leafy park in what seemed to be the right direction. As we got nearer to the town centre, we decided we wanted to try and track down the Esperanto road. On the map it looked like it was running alongside a river. Could it be here? There was a footpath alongside this river, but we couldn't find any evidence of a street sign so we weren't 100% sure. The path took us right into the middle of the town anyway, and immediately things started to look very pretty. We were now in the main square, Dobó tér. The square is home to one of Eger's many churches. This one is known as the Minorite church. The other large building in the square is Eger's town hall. In the middle of the square there is a large statue of István Dobó, who famously defended the fortress at Eger from the Ottomans in 1552. From the far end of the square, you can get a view up towards what remains of the fortress. It was a boiling hot day so we stopped in the square for a drink and then continued through the colourful streets of Eger... ...until we reached the town's cathedral. The cathedral is huge and it is painted a beautiful shade of yellow Yellow seemed to be a popular colour in Eger actually. We found a second yellow church... ...and also this yellow Franciscan monastery. But there were some churches which weren't yellow too The town centre is quite compact and we were soon nearly back to the main square, so we decided to start looking for somewhere to have lunch. There were quite a lot of restaurants, and happily the menus seemed to be in German, English and Polish as well as Hungarian, so it didn't take us long to find somewhere we like the look of. While I went for a more traditional spaghetti bolognese, Tim decided to try another local meal; this time pork tenderloin with some type of Hungarian potatoes. We also tried some of the local wine (which was delicious, though very sweet) and felt brave enough to try some Hungarian desserts. Tim went for cheesecake... ...while I tried something that was translated on the English menu as 'sponge cake', but which turned out to be more like a Hungarian variation on the theme of tiramisu. After lunch we decided to have another attempt at finding an Esperanto street sign. It turned out we had only walked along part of the riverside path earlier, and when we began walked down it in the opposite direction Tim soon caught sight of this sign With that mission accomplished, the main site remaining for us to visit in Eger was the castle. The entrance fee was 1,700 forints each (around £4.60). As soon as we had walked through the gates and paid, we started to get a great view out over the town. We could see the church in the main square and the cathedral further behind it. It turns out that there isn't that much left to see of the castle itself. Although it was successfully defended in 1552, the Ottomans returned in 1596 and this time the castle was handed over to them, signalling the start of nearly a century of Turkish rule over Eger. The Ottomans were expelled in 1687, but parts of the castle were then destroyed by the Austrians in 1701 in response to a local rebellion. It was worth coming up here for the views anyway Soon it was time to head back to the station for our train to Budapest. We stopped by Esperanto street for one last photo... ...and thought that was our Esperanto experiences over with for the day. Imagine our surprise when on the walk back from Keleti station to our apartment, a plaque on the wall caught my eye... The plaque announces that the Esperanto author Julio Baghy lived in this house from 1917 to 1966 It was a surprising end to what has been a fun day. Tomorrow, if all goes well with the trains, we will be travelling onwards to the town of Keszthely on Lake Balaton.
  16. Clare

    Day 4: Budapest

    We'd actually intended to explore more of the Pest side of the river yesterday evening, but our unexpected discovery of the park and Vajdahunyad castle meant that we'd run out of time. We therefore started our explorations of the city this morning by trying to follow the Pest walking tour in our guidebook. The walk started near Kálvin tér (Calvin Square), where there is a large Protestant church. From there we made our way to the Great Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. It's certainly a huge building, and it has a very pretty roof The market hall is near one of the bridges over the Danube. From here we were able to get our first views across to the other side of the river. In front of us was Gellért Hill, which has a large statue on the top. This was originally erected in 1948 with an inscription to commemorate the liberation of Hungary by the Soviets. After 1989, the inscription was changed to commemorate those who sacrificed their lines for Hungarian independence. The guidebook walk then took us away from the riverside and back inwards into the town. We eventually decided to stop following the route, when we caught sight of some interesting buildings which weren't part of it. This building with the colourful domed roof turned out to be part of the university library. We turned back towards the river, passing the impressive Vigado Concert Hall. Just around the corner from here was the Chain Bridge across the Danube, which I remembered from our previous visit in Budapest. The bridge was built in 1849, and at the time was one of the largest bridges in the world. It's guarded on either side by rather impressive lions. As soon as we started walking across the bridge, we began to get some amazing views across to the Buda side of the river. To the left we could see Buda Castle... ...and to the right we could see Matthias church. Once we had crossed the bridge, we were accosted by various people wanting to sell us tickets (for €7) to take a bus up the castle hill and claiming that this was the same price (return) as the official funicular. There was a huge queue for the funicular so we didn't get as far as figuring out whether it really was that expensive. Instead, we decided that the hill didn't actually look that big - at least, not so big that it was worth €7 to be driven to the top - and so we set off to find some steps instead. Within 5 minutes we were halfway up and able to look back down on the bridge We were getting closer to the castle... ...and we also got our first glimpses of the beautiful Hungarian parliament building. Soon we were at the top From here we could not only see the bridge, but also St Stephen's Basilica which we had seen briefly from the other side yesterday evening. Buda castle is the historical home of the Hungarian kings. There has been a castle on this site since the thirteenth century, though most of the buildings here today date from the eighteenth. Today the castle is home to the Hungarian National Gallery. We walked around in front of the castle for a while to enjoy the views. We could see a huge stretch of the other side of the river from up here, and it was really beautiful The view in the other direction was pretty too. We wandered around the hill-top until we came to Matthias Church. The church was originally built in the fourteenth century, then extensively restored in the nineteenth. The coronation of several Habsburg kings took place here. The roof of the church in particular is really stunning. In front of the church is the strangely-named Fisherman's Bastion. This is a terrace, which was constructed between 1895 and 1902. There are seven towers in the terrace, which represent the seven Magyar tribes who originally settled in the region. It isn't immediately clear what any of this has to do with fishermen Apparently, the castle wall on this side used to be protected by the fishermen's guild, and that's where the name comes from. It's very picturesque anyway At the end of Fisherman's Bastion there is a wall where you can get a great view of the Hungarian parliament building. Although some of us went to more extreme lengths than others to get a good photo We had a final look at the beautiful church... ...and then began walking down the hill, through the old town of Buda. It was a pretty place, with lots of colourful buildings. We found another enormous church with a patterned roof too. Once we were down at river level, we got the absolute best view of the parliament building We strolled back along the river bank, until we got back to the traffic island by the chain bridge that we had photographed earlier from above. As we crossed the bridge back to Pest, we had a clear view back up to where we'd been There is so much to see in Budapest that we could have kept walking all day, but we'd covered 11 miles in total, so decided we'd better call it a day soon. The main thing I still really wanted to see was St Stephen's Basilica. It didn't disappoint All that remained was for us to find somewhere to get some food; we were in the timeframe when it's too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but luckily the restaurants in Budapest don't seem too fussed about sticking to schedules and we soon found a nice Italian restaurant where we enjoyed some paprika-free pizza. It was a nice end to what has been a really fun day in Budapest
  17. It was another lovely sunny day when we woke up this morning and walked into Bratislava for breakfast. Our train to Budapest wasn't until 11.53, so we had some spare time for a stroll around the town and decided to walk across the UFO bridge. On the opposite side of the bridge we found the park Sad Janka Kráľa, which was nice and shady. As we walked through it we came across a strange monument, in the form of what looked like the top of a church tower which had been lopped off. Apparently it was once part of a Franciscan church in the fifteenth century, but the church later became unstable following an earthquake. It was about 10.30 by this point so we needed to start walking back to the hotel to check out and catch our train. We made it to the station with plenty of time to spare, only to find that the train to Budapest was delayed by 20 minutes. Oh dear It was around 12.15 before it finally arrived and - because the train had come from Prague - it was already quite full, so we initially struggled to find seats. Once the chaos of everyone getting on and trying to find place for their luggage had subsided, Tim did manage to track down a couple of spaces for us though, and after that it was a comfortable journey The train travelled through the south of Slovakia, stopping in Nové Zámky and Štúrovo, before crossing the border into Hungary at Szob. As soon as we had crossed into Hungary, the announcements on the train became utterly incomprehensible and I began to feel belatedly that I had actually understood quite a lot of Slovak Another ticket inspection took place and before too long the train was rolling through the outskirts in Budapest. The journey was supposed to take around 2.5 hours, but somehow we managed to make up the 20 minute delay en route and arrive in Budapest more or less on schedule. The train from Bratislava arrives at the station Budapest Nygati and the apartment I had booked was around a mile from there, so we set off in search of it. I'd had an email from the owner last night saying that he couldn't be there to let us in and giving us instructions for self check-in. The instructions seemed a little complex. Once we'd found the building, we had to input a code to be let through a gate then walk straight on, turn right, up the first floor and the apartment would be on our left. We then had to input a second code, this time for a box which held the door keys, and unlock first a gate and then the actual door in order to get inside. Happily, the instructions were so detailed that it all worked like clockwork and when we stepped inside the apartment, we found it surpassed our expectations. This is the bedroom... ...and this is the huge living area. The kitchen is equipped with everything you need to self-cater (including a coffee machine!)... ...and even the bathroom is really spacious. I had to consult the reservation to double-check how much I'd paid for this... it turned out to be the bargain price of £47 per night It was around 4pm by this point, so after a minimal amount of unpacking we set out to explore a bit of Budapest. Our apartment is in a really good location, with a bakery across the street and a Tesco-express-style Lidl just around the corner. As we walked further up the street it became increasingly grand, with some very big buildings that appeared to be embassies. The Chinese embassy in particular was in a beautiful building, but there was a policeman on guard outside so we decided not to take a photo We were able to take a picture of this very pretty church across the street, though. We turned left at a main road and caught sight of what looked like a tall monument in the distance. It wasn't until we got a lot closer that we could see quite how impressive it was. This is Hősök tere (Heroes' Square). The large column in the middle is known as the Millennium Memorial and was constructed in 1896 to celebrate 1000 years since the Hungarians conquered the Carpathian Basin. The colonnades behind feature statues of important figures from Hungarian history. The statues around the base of the column represent the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, who were the leaders of the seven Hungarian tribes that originally arrived in the region. They look like they were rather fierce! Across the road from the square is the Budapest Hall of Art, which has a very pretty facade. We walked out of the square and across a bridge over a little lake. We were now in Városliget, the city park. As we walked through the park we caught sight of some intriguing turrets in the distance, which we wanted to explore further. It turns out that this was Vajdahunyad Castle, also built in 1896 as part of the millennial celebrations. It was designed to mimic the architectural styles of several important castles in what was at the time the Hungarian empire (today some of them are now in Romania). It's a really beautiful building, and something we managed to miss entirely when we first came to Budapest in 2012. We walked around the castle for a while and found there were several more buildings to admire... I really liked this little church ... ...and there were some beautiful flowers in front of this statue of a Hungarian politician. We hadn't had any lunch so were feeling pretty hungry by this point. We walked down the long Andrássy Avenue, a boulevard which was apparently built to rival the Champs-Élysées, until we got to the centre of town and caught a glimpse of St Stephen's Basilica. We also saw a sign for a restaurant advertising Hungarian specialities, so decided to give it a try. We started with a bowl of goulash soup, which Tim enjoyed but I found had far too many vegetables in for my taste. For the main course, Tim tried gypsy-style pork with garlic sauce, while I had paprika chicken with what was described as "Hungarian noodles". They turned out to be very similar to gnocchi. It was nice but the more paprika you eat, the increasingly spicy it feels. We washed it down with some nice Hungarian wine, followed by pancakes This afternoon has been a fun introduction to Budapest and we're looking forward to explore more of the city tomorrow
  18. Clare

    Day 2: Devín

    I had a nice lie-in this morning, so it was after 9am before we left the hotel and started walking into Bratislava. It was another lovely sunny day; warm, but not too hot. We decided to walk into town via a different route to the one we'd taken yesterday, so it wasn't long before we came to the Presidential Palace. There were some beautiful flowers in the gardens... ...and the front of the building is impressive too. We walked through the gate into the old town... ...through the main square... ...and onwards to McDonalds, where we had breakfast for €4.50 each; significantly cheaper than the €16 in the hotel and it included my favourite Cappy apple juice It wasn't a bad view from a McDonalds either! After breakfast, our plan was to catch a bus to the nearby town of Devín, where there is an impressive castle that we have visited a few times before. The bus leaves from the station near the UFO bridge and it only costs €0.90 for a ticket as far as Devín. I knew the bus was supposed to be the 29, but when we got to the station we struggled to find which bus stop it was due to leave from. Eventually we realised there was an electronic sign, which announced that it would be leaving from bus stop number 6, but despite walking up and down the platforms several times, we couldn't find number 6. In the end Tim realised that there was another bus stop outside the station on the main road. This turned out to be number 6, and we found it just on time to hop on a passing bus Devín is only about 12km from Bratislava, so it doesn't take the bus long to get there. From our last visit in 2012, I remembered that the bus stopped in a large carpark below the castle. After around 15 minutes, the bus arrived in Devín and drove along the high street. I expected it to then turn off towards the castle car park.... realising slightly too late that it wasn't going to do any such thing and was continuing down the main road out of the town. Oops! We quickly jumped off at the next stop and began walking back towards Devín. Luckily it turned out not to be too much of a hardship, because we soon found a pathway to follow alongside the river. It wasn't long before we got our first glimpse of the castle in the distance. As we got closer it became clear what an imposing position the castle has, towering high above the river and the rest of the town. One of the most striking bits of the castle is this little turret, perched on a tiny rocky tower of its own. We followed a pathway around the bottom of the castle rock. Devín is located at the point where the river Morava flows into the Danube, and so we had a great view from here out across the water. The Morava looks like a calm river, but the Danube was flowing incredibly fast. bratislava-day-2-27.mp4 After we'd followed the path for a while, we turned back up into the town of Devín. It's a small but pretty place... ...and occasionally you turn a corner and get a view of the castle in the distance We eventually made our way back towards the castle. It costs €5 each to get in, which is a bit more than last time we were here, but a lot of restoration work has been done since then, in particular on the upper part of the castle. Although from a distance the hill which the castle is on looks quite high, in reality the path up has quite a gentle slope and it wasn't long before the castle was looking noticeably closer. Or maybe the climb up to every castle will just feel easy in future compared to climbing up to the palace in Sintra Soon we were up high enough to look down on the little turret we'd been staring up at earlier. There was still a way to go to get to the upper castle, though. We explored the lower part of the castle first. From here the view of the confluence was even better than at ground level. Then it was time to climb to the upper part. Again it was easier than we expected, with modern staircases all the way up. Once we were at the top we had a view back towards Devín and could make out the white church we'd photographed earlier. We could see along the Morava too, where we'd been walking earlier after overshooting Devín. And if we looked really carefully, we could just make out Bratislava, in the form of a row of tower blocks on the horizon. There was a helpful map up here which showed us what we were looking at. The dotted line on the map represents the border, and showed us that everything we were looking at across the river was Austria. As we climbed back down, we realised that there were some sort of medieval games going on in the castle today. Some people were practising archery... ..others were playing a game which seemed to involve splitting an apple with a sword... ...and some seemed to be engaging in what looked like a medieval version of It's A Knockout bratislava-day-2-77.mp4 It was mid-afternoon by this point and we were starting to feel hungry, so we walked back down towards the river and had a late lunch at a restaurant we've eaten in before. Tim had goulash with dumplings... ...while I went for the traditional Slovak Bryndzové halušky (potato dumplings with sheep's cheese - it tastes a lot better than it sounds!!) The food was so good that we gave into temptation and ordered pudding too. Although it looks like red cabbage, Tim's strudel was full of cherries I went for a more traditional apple one We were absolutely stuffed by this point, so had a final look at the castle before setting off to catch the bus back to Bratislava. We'd solved the problem of the bus earlier when walking through the castle car park. There is indeed a bus stop, but it's the bus 129 which stops at here and we had been on a 29. From the timetable it looked like the 129 might be a special bus which runs straight to the castle on weekends, whereas the 29 is the normal bus which runs through the town every day. Once we were back in Bratislava, we had one more task we had to accomplish before we could go back to the hotel and relax: buying our train tickets for Budapest. We are due to travel to Budapest tomorrow, but research had revealed that it wasn't possible to buy the tickets online, so we'd had to wait until we were in Bratislava. As with all international tickets, it was difficult to work out online what the price would be. The website of Slovak railways referred to a "special offer" price of €9 which was available for purchase in advance, but it wasn't really clear about how far in advance the tickets had to be purchased. It also implied that there was a limited number of these tickets available each day, without specifying how much the journey would cost if the cheap tickets had all sold out... I don't like this sort of uncertainty, but luckily when we got to the station, everything turned out to be fine and we got the €9 fare I've really enjoyed being back in Bratislava, but I'm very excited about going to Hungary tomorrow And it seems incredible that I can travel from Bratislava to Budapest for €9 when it costs me £11.15 every day to get from Nuneaton to Birmingham!
  19. We had an 08.30 flight from Stansted to Bratislava this morning, which sounded quite civilised until I counted backwards and realised that it required us getting up at 03.30. All went smoothly with the journey though and we didn't even have to queue for too long to check in our baggage at the airport, although there was a slight frisson of excitement when we realised we had to use a self-service machine and attach our own baggage labels again Our flight departed a little late because of congestion at the airport, but once we were on our way there was a beautiful view, with clear skies almost the entire way across Europe. We landed in a sunny Bratislava just before midday and probably for the first time ever here, stepped off the plane and weren't overwhelmed by a wave of heat. Although it was warm, it actually felt slightly cooler than it has been in the UK for the past few days, and there was even a bit of a breeze I was relieved to find that the vigour with which we'd ensured our baggage labels were fully stuck together had paid off, and our cases arrived without any problems. We were soon on the airport bus, speeding towards the centre of Bratislava. We were staying in the Mercure again, which is in a great location near to the train station, but couldn't check in until 2pm, so went for a drink at the station cafe to pass the 45 minutes or so which we had left to wait. It seemed like the prices might have gone up slightly since we were last here; €1.70 for an apple juice. We managed to check in a little bit early in the end which was good, because I was rather tired after the early start. I ended up having a slightly longer nap than planned, so it was 5pm before we eventually headed out for a walk. It was a beautiful evening, with a clear blue sky above the old town. We strolled around for a while, admiring the cathedral, before finding a restaurant where we could sit outside and have dinner. I had a lovely spaghetti carbonara, but Tim was slightly less impressed about the amount of gunk which came with the burger he ordered! I'm not quite sure what was going on in Bratislava today, but as we sat eating we saw a series of people on stilts walking through the town centre. We had an after-dinner stroll, which took us to the main square, Hlavné námestie.... ...admiring the old town hall from both sides. As we decided to start heading back to the hotel for an early night, we came across another group of people in costume; this time not just on stilts, but also performing tricks on a unicycle. I wouldn't have fancied volunteering to be one of the people they were jumping over Tomorrow we're looking forward to seeing a bit more of Bratislava and taking a trip to Devín Castle
  20. Tim


    Plus their wedding anniversary.
  21. Clare

    Day 8: Sintra

    When we were in Portugal last September, one of our favourite days out was to Sintra. Sintra is located about 30km outside of Lisbon, in a hilly forested area, and is famous for its collection of palaces and castles. One palace in particular caught our attention last time: the colourful Palácio da Pena, with its red, yellow and blue walls. We only went into the grounds last time around - which I regretted afterwards - so I was really looking forward to coming back and getting a ticket to go into the palace itself this time around. We were planning to catch a train to Sintra from Lisbon's Rossio station this morning. I had forgotten to look at the timetables in advance though, so we ended up just missing one and having to wait an hour for the next. We passed the time by having a coffee at the station cafe, from where we had a view up towards Lisbon's castle. I may have had a custard tart too The train from Lisbon to Sintra takes around 40 minutes and the return fare was only €5, which seemed pretty reasonable. It was a big train, but a busy one; Sintra is a very popular tourist destination and if we hadn't been at the station early, we'd probably have had to stand. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't very good today (we'd been woken up this morning by the sound of torrential rain) and so when we stepped off the train in Sintra and walked towards its iconic town hall, the sky was rather grey and cloudy. As we walked towards the town centre, we soon saw the Castle of the Moors towering high above us. That was a little bit daunting, as we knew from past experience that we needed to climb at least as high, if not higher, to reach the Palácio da Pena. We were trying to follow the path which we took last time, but took a slight wrong turn at one point. It became clear we were going the wrong way when the road started to lead downhill It didn't matter though, because everywhere you turn in Sintra there is something interesting to see. Eventually we found the road we wanted and started to climb up above the town. I was quite excited that soon we could see the sea We were looking for the Villa Sassetti hiking trail, which leads up from the town to the foot of the palace gardens. It's quite a steep path, but peaceful as you manage to lose the coachloads of tourists, at least temporarily Partway up, we passed the Villa Sassetti, after which the trail is named. Before too long, we were an awful lot nearer the Castle of the Moors than we had been when we were in Sintra. A little bit further, and we got our first view of the Palácio da Pena. This meant we were at the entrance to the palace park. We paid for the full ticket this time - €14 each - which would enable us to explore both the park and the palace itself. This sign warned that there were still 1050 metres to go, and a 14% incline. We set off, first walking through the Valley of the Lakes. The path here was all very flat, which made a nice change. Soon the path started going upwards again! Walking in the park was fun though, because every so often we came across interesting monuments like this one. Eventually we were there! I'm not sure how far we'd climbed, but my Fitbit puts it at 126 staircases, so quite far! It was worth it for the views The palace gate was as far as we had got last time, so it was exciting to finally go through it Straightaway we were able to get a closer view of the big yellow tower. And we could just see the red clock tower too. Of course, we'd reunited with all the coachloads of tourists now, so it was pretty busy everywhere... ...but worth it to see the palace from so many different angles. We explored the ramparts around the castle for a while... ...before getting closer to the main gate. It was being guarded by this rather scary looking creature! The inside of the gateway was completely tiled. Some of the tiles were really pretty... ...while others depicted violent battle scenes. Once we were through the gate, we found ourselves in a courtyard from where we had impressive views out over the surrounding countryside. When we looked upwards, we were now really close to the red clock tower. This very pointy and stripy roof is the entrance to the palace chapel. It was very ornate inside... ...and there was some colourful stained glass. I particularly loved this pane, which featured the tower of Belem that we saw yesterday. Then it was time to go into the palace itself. The palace was built by the Portuguese king Ferdinand II, who bought what was the site of a ruined monastery on the top of this hill and decided to transform it into a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. Inside there are lots of very ornate rooms, like this dining room... ...and this bedroom. This room had some very elaborate statues holding the chandeliers! The best views were probably when we periodically emerged into the inner courtyard though and were able to see up towards the clocktower again. It was definitely fun to see inside, but overall I think the outside of the castle is the best It was beginning to rain by this point, so we decided we'd better head back town to Sintra. Partway down were rewarded with a lovely view back up towards the palace There were just a few slightly difficult paths to negotiate before we were back in the town, enjoying some lasagne and wine Although the weather wasn't perfect, it's been a lovely day and a great end to what has been a very exciting holiday!
  22. We had an early start this morning, with our flight departing Ponta Delgada at 08.30. That meant that by 6am, we were leaving the apartment and setting out to walk to the airport. Walking to the airport felt like a very novel thing to do It looked like it was going to be a nice sunny day in the Azores, and it was already warm enough to walk around comfortably in shorts and tshirts. We were flying to Lisbon with Ryanair, so it wasn't quite as glamorous as our experience with TAP had been on Saturday, but we only paid around £45 each for the flight (including baggage), so we can't really complain. As the plane took off, we had a final beautiful view of the south coast of the island. We could see there were clouds hovering over the mountain which is home to Lagoa do Fogo, so I don't think we would have got quite such a good view this morning. As the plane flew onwards, I caught sight of the Vila Franca islet. As we got closer, we could see the lake in the middle of it, which had been hidden from view when we were on the harbour in Vila Franca. I think from above is definitely the best way to see it Our final shot of the Azores was of lake Furnas, which you can hopefully just make out towards the centre of this photo After that, there was nothing much but sea until we landed in Lisbon around 11.45. Unexpectedly, Lisbon looked rather cold and grey, as if it had recently been raining. Oh dear! We successfully retrieved our baggage and caught a metro into the city centre. The metro in Lisbon is very good value and we only paid €1.65 each for the journey. We are staying for two nights in a small hotel in the city centre; it's pretty basic, but it's in a really good location near to the main Rossio train station, and check-in was possible from 12.30 which meant we were able to go straight there and drop off our bags We were starving by this point, so once we'd unpacked a few things we went out to get lunch. Luckily in the time it had taken us to travel across Lisbon on the metro, the weather seemed to have significantly improved and it was now warm enough for us to sit outdoors. Once we'd eaten, we set out for a stroll through Lisbon, soon coming to Praça do Comércio. At the far end of the square is the Rua Augusta arch, which was built to commemorate Lisbon's reconstruction after a devastating earthquake in 1755. From the far end of the square we could also see out to the sea/river (Lisbon is built at the point where the river Tagus enters the sea, so I've never quite worked out whether this bit is technically the sea or not!) On the far side of the water, we could just make out the statue of Cristo Rei, which overlooks the city. It was built in the 1950s to give thanks for the fact that Portugal was spared during WW2. As we don't have very much time in Lisbon, we had decided in advance that we wanted to concentrating on seeing the things which we had enjoyed most last time around. That meant that our plan for this afternoon was to visit Belém. Belém is a suburb of Lisbon which is home to all sorts of interesting monuments. Our first stop once we arrived in Belém was the botanical garden. We really enjoyed it last time we were here, and in particularly I had been impressed by this avenue of enormous palm trees. It is definitely a pretty place, but somehow it didn't seem quite so impressive after all the amazing flowers we'd just seen in the Azores I was more excited by the fact that, upon exiting the botanical garden, we found a row of blue (or possibly, on closer inspection, they're actually purple!) trees, like the one I'd seen in Ponta Delgada earlier in the week. The trees were just across the road from the huge Jerónimos Monastery. From here we walked to the other side of Belém in search of the Belém tower. The tower was built in the sixteenth century as part of a defence system on the Tagus river. Originally the tower was on a small island, but after the big earthquake which Lisbon suffered in the eighteenth century, the course of the river changed, with the result that the tower is now right by the shore. Now that we'd seen the tower, there was just one more sight in Belém that we really wanted to see again. This huge statue is called the Monument to the Discoveries, and was built to commemorate Portuguese exploration. It's so big that we were able to make it out from the air when our plane was coming in to the land in Lisbon last Saturday! It was about 6pm by this point so we decided to call it a day and catch the train back to the hotel to do the blog. Lisbon is a really beautiful city and it's nice to be back here again (though it does feel very busy compared to the Azores!!).
  23. Today was our final day on the island of São Miguel. It's been a hectic one but very satisfying in that we finished it having achieved everything we wanted to do during our stay. I was in a fairly good mood because we'd got back our deposit left with the apartment owner. That was never really in doubt but the second deposit -- for the rental car -- was. Every car on this island has scuffs on its alloys. It's not possible not to clip curbs when you're driving down very narrow streets in old towns and another car is coming the other way. Our car had gained two sets of scuffs since I took over. Worse that that, it had gained mirror-image scratches on each side's rear doors. The cause of those scratches is very simple; there's a lot of wild flowers here and sometimes they grow overshooting the curb. If you happen to be on a mountain road with a bus coming the other way, the car drives through them. The upshot was that I was convinced that these new marks would be pointed out and mysteriously the cost of repairs would equal the excess. That's not to be sniffed at when it amounts to 800€ which has already been taken as a deposit. I was in luck, though. The man collecting the car wasn't the one who had dropped it off so he didn't have the same knowledge of which scratches were already in place. He checked that I had left sufficient petrol then asked me to sign to say I'd handed it back without a mark! He didn't even query the orange warning light being on on the dashboard. He then cancelled the transaction which had been pre-authorised for my deposit. Result! That just left us with the very pleasant job of going out for an evening meal. We took one last walk through Ponta Delgada and headed to the restaurant we'd had a quick and cheap lunch in on Sunday. I'd noticed that though everything else was cheap, there was one particular steak which wasn't. It was clearly a local speciality, so that's what we had. It was delicious, as were the desserts: chocolate mousse for Clare, and a local cake for me. Wonderful stuff. We exited and walked for the final time across the main square: Lovely, isn't it? It's now time for bed, since our flight leaves early tomorrow and we'll be carrying out a first of walking to the airport. We've reviewed this holiday over dinner and are clear that it's one of the top ones we've ever had with no day whatsoever being wasted. It seems that we'll be coming back on another occasion, only for a two-week break and with the intention of doing some island-hopping too
  24. When I woke up this morning I felt excited, because it looked like we finally had a genuinely sunny day This was great news because there was one view in particular that we hadn't managed to see, even on any of the other reasonably sunny days, because the relevant part of the island is frequently shrouded in mist: Lagoa do Fogo. We set off immediately as soon as we'd finished breakfast, and began the somewhat torturous drive to the lake, up a winding mountain road. While there were clouds in the sky, they all seemed to be reasonably high, so as we made our way up the mountain, we thought we were in with a good chance of getting the view. Sure enough, we soon came to the first of many viewpoints which overlook the lake, and got our first glimpse As you can probably tell, I was quite happy to finally be here There was also a good view in the opposite direction from the lake. It hasn't come out very clearly in these photos because the sea is merging into the sky again, but we could see all the way down to the harbour in Ponta Delgada. The edge of the viewpoint was a little bit alarming, with a sheer drop down! I managed to stand by the edge briefly for a photo. Then we moved on to the next viewpoint, which was only a few hundred metres down the road. The view from this one was even better! Lagoa do Fogo means Lake of Fire in English and this is yet another lake situated in a volcanic crater. The following viewpoint gave us the view which I've seen on postcards of the island. We could see the sea from here as well. At the final viewpoint we were a bit lower down and closer to the lake, which meant we could appreciate more clearly the amazing shade of blue of the water. It was truly stunning. It's hard to choose a favourite lake on this holiday, but this one is definitely in the running. Apart from Lagoa do Fogo, the other part of the island which we really wanted to visit today was Nordeste. This is the northeastern part of the island, and it's supposed to be the wildest and most remote. We started in the small town of Nordeste itself, which is the main population centre. We found somewhere to park the car and had a stroll through a park with a big cactus tree... ...and plenty of palm trees... ...before emerging in the main town square, complete with church. There were lots of beautiful flowers around the town ...and some lovely views out to sea as well. We'd read that there were some really great viewpoints outside Nordeste. The first one is by the lighthouse, Farol do Arnel. We arrived there and found a picnic spot... ...with some views out over the surrounding green countryside. What we couldn't see was any sign of a lighthouse! We soon realised that we had to follow a steep road downwards towards the sea in order to find the lighthouse itself. This sign recommended that we go on foot, because the road has a 35% gradient. Hard to capture in the photos, but it really was a very steep path indeed. As we got further down, we were rewarded with some amazing views of the cliffs though; first on the left... ...and then on the right. Tim got to the end of the path ahead of me and eventually located the elusive lighthouse. It opened in 1876, making it the oldest lighthouse in the Azores. No sooner had he got to the bottom, then Tim realised that he had left the car unlocked with the SatNav on display, so he decided he'd better sprint(!) back up the hill to make sure it was okay. That left me to attempt to get a photo of myself with the cliffs... ...and with the lighthouse itself. Luckily, when Tim got back up to the car park, all was well with the car. We were soon on our way to the next viewpoint: Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego. We didn't know what to expect from this viewpoint in advance, but it turns out that it's a beautiful garden overlooking the sea. The views were absolutely stunning.... ...and the flowers made them even better. I was definitely wishing I'd paid more attention to the chapter in the guidebook about flowers. There were some very unusual trees too; look at this one with the red spikes! I could have stayed at this viewpoint all day, but there was one more viewpoint to go. The next viewpoint was Miradouro da Ponta da Madrugada. This one was also very pretty... ...though it didn't have quite as many flowers. We were pretty hungry at this point, so we decided to drive towards Furnas, on the basis that it was reasonably close and we knew we would be able to park and get something to eat there. When approaching the village, we accidentally took a wrong turn and discovered another location with volcanic activity! There was an awful lot of steam here! lots-of-steam.mp4 We also found a spot with water that was gurgling even more violently that the stuff we had seen the other day. water-gurgling.mp4 Once we'd admired the volcanic activity for a while, we set off in search of somewhere to park alongside Furnas lake. Finally we were able to see it in the sunshine and confirm that it is indeed a very beautiful place when it's not raining We hadn't really been able to appreciate on Monday what a beautiful shade of blue the lake really is. Finally being able to see it in the sunshine was a perfect end to what has been an absolutely amazing trip to the Azores We've had a fantastic time here and had so many incredible views that I think anywhere else we go is going to struggle to measure up! Hopefully we'll be back here again one day, and maybe even be able to visit some of the other islands
  25. We had a heck of a day today finally, after three visits in three days, getting the photos of Sete Cidades that we'd booked the flights to get. Unexpectedly, the cloud had cleared and a blue sky emerged in the late afternoon, which gave us cause to think we should make hay and visit some more places, but fatigue dictated that we head back to the apartment. We couldn't stay in for long, though. The sun was shining and we hadn't actually seen much Ponta Delgada besides a visit under the clouds on Sunday, so we thought we'd go out to a stroll. Even though we'd walked this street before, we hadn't noticed either this building or the massive cactus growing in its courtyard. We had, however, seen this beautiful blue building before: It was at the back of the garden with a beautiful tree whose flowers were blue a few days ago but which had now become purple: The whole garden was as vibrant as we remembered it: Soon we'd headed to the square which featured the colourful monastery: I hadn't noticed this previously but there was a rather elderly tree (look at the supports its branches need) which seemed to be sporting dreadlocks: Not far from there was the main square: We found a cafe nearby and decided to stop off for a drink: Whilst we were sitting there, the church became illuminated: It looked great! The whole square looked pretty because of it: It became clear that other places we'd visited earlier had had their lights switched on too: And not long afterwards we were back at the apartment, hungry because we'd skipped lunch again. But it was worth delaying dinner by an hour to see Ponta Delgada without clouds!
  26. When we woke up this morning it seemed like a very dismal day indeed. There was so much low cloud over Ponta Delgada while we were eating breakfast that I couldn't even see the sea from the balcony! We had a slow start to the morning, writing our postcards and going on a trek to the supermarket to try and find somewhere to post them. Once we'd accomplished that, the clouds had begun to lift; so much so, that we gambled it might be worth another trip to Sete Cidades. As we drove up the road towards the viewpoints, things certainly looked a lot brighter than they had on Sunday... .and when we got to the viewpoint at Miradouro da Vista do Rei, the view was amazing This is the view that you see on postcards of the Azores, with no mist or cloud We could see the track we had followed along the edge of the smaller, green lake yesterday morning, as well as the dividing bridge that we'd driven across. It hasn't come out very clearly in the photos, but in the opposite direction we could also see all the way down to the sea (the darker blue is the sea, then it merges into the lighter blue of the sky). We could have admired the view here all day, but we wanted to make sure we got to the second viewpoint before the clouds descended again, so it was time to press on, driving past the abandoned hotel once again. It felt like it took forever to drive, looking suspiciously at the sky to check whether any clouds were overtaking us, but eventually we got to Miradouro da Boca do Inferno, and it was still clear We climbed up the steps towards the viewpoint... ...and soon we were there This was the view we'd wanted to get ever since we first started researching the Azores, and it was worth the wait What we hadn't realised was that from up here, we could also see several other lakes as well as the famous blue lake of Sete Cidades. The information board explained that in front of us was the Lagoa de Santiago, another crater originating from a volcanic eruption. Above that, we could see the much smaller lake, Lagoa Rasa. The blue lake was still the most impressive, though Although there were a few more cars parked along the forest road than there had been on Sunday, we were lucky that it was still pretty quiet and we were mostly able to enjoy the views on our own. It seems like it never gets truly busy anywhere in the Azores. One fortunate exception was a nice Portuguese girl who came along the path and offered to take a photo of us together Prior to that we'd been experimenting with a selfie, but it hadn't gone very well Eventually it was time to head back down the path and set off for our next destination. We were heading towards a smaller lake, called Lagoa do Congro. We'd read online that, while this one is not as famous as the lakes at Sete Cidades or Furnas, it's still worth seeing. We were initially unsure whether that was going to be the case, as signs led us down a very bumpy single-track road towards some muddy fields. Another sign then pointed us towards a steep forest track. It was one of those walks where you spend the climb down thinking about the fact that you're going to have to climb back up! After 10 - 15 minutes, we got our first glimpse of the lake. This is another lake which is very green! Lagoa do Congro is also yet another lake in a volcanic crater. The sides of the lake are so steep that this definitely isn't one you can walk around! Time to start the climb back up! We thought about trying another nearby lake after this, but we could see that the clouds were starting to close in once again. Instead, we decided to stop at one of the towns along the south coast; Vila Franca do Campo. I would probably have thought the coast here was impressive if we hadn't been to Mosteiros the day before! We strolled along by the harbour for a while. When we turned back, we could see just how low the cloud now was. In what seems to be a theme for this holiday, we had been too over-excited with sightseeing to remember to have lunch, so we were feeling pretty hungry by this point. We stopped at the first cafe we saw, unaware (until we saw the certificates on the walls!) that it had won prizes for producing a Portuguese speciality called queijada. Once we figured it out, we had to try them At first glance they seemed similar to the pastel de nata I've been eating at every opportunity this week, but once you bit into them they were less custardy and a lot more sugary. Now that we had a sugar rush, we continued exploring Vila Franca. It was a pretty little town, with some interesting street decorations... ...a church which looked quite similar to the one in Ponta Delgada... ...and a matching town hall. Vila Franca is best known for the Vila Franca islet, which is a kilometre off the coast of the town. It doesn't look very impressive in these pictures, but the islet is formed from the crater of an old underwater volcano and has a big circular lake in the middle (if you google it, you'll find pictures taken from above which show it properly!). Finally it was time to head back to Ponta Delgada and start updating the blog Miraculously it seems to have become sunny again this evening, so fingers crossed that tomorrow is another rain-free day!
  27. When we woke up this morning the first thing we noticed was that the weather looked considerably better than yesterday The forecast had actually been for there to be intermittent showers throughout the day, but we could get glimpses of a blue sky over Ponta Delgada so it didn't look like it was going to be as bad as we had been expecting. In a fit of optimism, we decided to start the day by driving up the road to the Sete Cidades viewpoints on the offchance the weather might be clear enough to see the views, but that turned out to be a wasted effort. By the time we had got partway up the hillside, we were completely engulfed in clouds and there was no way we were going to see anything. Instead, we decided to take the road downhill towards the village of Sete Cidades, which is situated next to the lakes, in the hope that we would at least be able to get a bit of a view when we were at lake level. We were driving through the mist and cloud when we saw a van coming towards us flashing its lights. For a few seconds I couldn't work out what the problem was, and then I realised that he was being followed by a herd of cows. We had no choice but to sit and wait while they went past cows.mp4 We eventually arrived at the lakes and found that there was plenty of space to park, or at least there would have been if most of the available carpark wasn't being occupied by ducks! As soon as we had parked they came waddling up to us en masse, clearly hoping for some food. This duck was particularly persistent; he reminded us of what Pebbles would be like if she was a duck pebbles-duck.mp4 Now that we were down at lake level we could see how low the clouds really were! There isn't a path which goes all the way around the lakes, but there was a track we could follow for a little way at least. Initially we weren't 100% sure whether we were walking around the green lake or the blue lake... ...but it soon became clear that this was the green one. Apparently the two lakes reflect the sunlight differently, causing them to appear as if they are different colours. We wondered whether the green lake appears green because of the very dense green vegetation which seems to be growing in it. We walked as far as we could on the track and then turned around back in the direction of the car park. We got back to the bridge between the two lakes and went to have a look at the blue lake too. This one definitely looked a little bluer, and there was even a bit of blue sky trying to break through the clouds We admired the lake for a while before hopping back in the car to head towards our next destination of the day. Our plan was to keep driving in the direction of the northern coast of the island, where there were supposed to be some beautiful views at a place called Ferraria. Sure enough, there were The sky was much bluer here. It was a little bit windy though! Ferraria is another part of the island where there has been volcanic activity. People come to bathe here because there are hot thermal springs in the sea. We were going to give the bathing a miss, but we could see evidence of the volcanic activity from the very black earth at the side of the road.... ...and, of course, the black rocks down below. We admired the view for a while and then set off for our next destination: Mosteiros. Mosteiros is another small village on the coast and it has a very distinctive beach. I'm sure there's a proper geographical term for this that I don't know, but it basically looks like lava was flowing down to the sea and then set. It was a bizarre landscape, but a really striking one. There were beautiful little pools of water in between the lava rocks. The rock was easy to walk on - not at all wet and slippery - so we were able to explore as much as we wanted... ...and admire the views of the sea. The sea was really choppy today, so we had fun watching it smashing against the rocks. tide-flowing.mp4 This definitely isn't a place where you would want to come and swim! As we had been driving towards Mosteiros, we had also noticed that there were some huge rocks out in the sea. From here we were able to get a better view Our final destination for the day was a rather unusual one, even by Azores standards: the Gorreana tea plantation. Founded in 1883, this is currently the only tea plantation in Europe. I'd got a leaflet for a marked trail which we could follow around the tea plantation. It was less than 4km, so I figured it would be pretty easy. What I hadn't realised was that the tea plantation was actually quite hilly, so there was a lot of walking uphill. It was really beautiful though Seeing the tea growing was really fascinating; it looked like rows and rows of little hedges. We were able to watch some of the men working in the plantation. They appeared to be mowing the top of the hedges and then collecting up the leaves in big sacks. As we climbed higher, we began to get views back down towards the sea as well. The day had brightened up considerably now, at least around the coast. It was a circular walk, so having gone very steeply uphill now meant that we had a steep downhill to negotiate as well. We made it back and went into the tea factory, where there was an audiovisual display about making tea and - more excitingly - an opportunity to sample the teas for free. They were really lovely It was a relaxing end to what has been a very exciting day
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